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  • Writer's pictureMike Zilles

NTA Ebulletin, August 30, 2020

On Thursday, August 28, the NTA held a General Membership Meeting, and called upon its members to ratify a number of demands. Certainly the most controversial of those demands was a vote of no confidence in David Fleishman, including a call on him to resign immediately. We posed the question twice, once before the Q & A period, and once after. In the first vote, 61% of members voted no confidence with the call on Fleishman to resign; in the second, 67%. Two thirds of the members of the Newton Teachers Association agreed that the Newton Public Schools would be better off if Superintend Fleishman resigned tomorrow. I cast my vote with this 2/3. At the end of this email, you will be given the chance to weigh in on this question, once again if you attended the GMM meeting, and for the first time, if you did not. Since that meeting, on Friday, we learned even more of the egregious consequences of the district’s poor planning. Elementary Chaos We have learned that elementary school teachers are experiencing a near complete decimation of their school communities. Classrooms are being closed as students and staff move into the Distance Learning Academy. Schools are being reduced to 2/3 their previous student and staffing levels. 48 hours before they are scheduled to report back to work, teachers are being moved from school to school, reassigned to different grade levels, or told they must teach two grade levels in their A/B hybrid cohorts. Teachers felt insulted, when, on Friday, they received notice of these impending changes with an email that began with a boast about how “unique and ambitious among Massachusetts school districts” the NPS model of providing “an equitable in-person and distance experience for all of our students,” one “in line with our values of excellence and equity.”  The number of staffing changes is incredibly high, an unprecedented level of disruption that, even in the best of times, would be difficult for a community to weather. Even for those who remain in their buildings, their school communities have been fractured. And these are not the best of times. Teachers will be working with students who have fallen far behind academically, are experiencing trauma, fear, and anxiety. They will face six, seven, eight, nine, ten, eleven year old children, sitting six feet apart from their classmates, wearing masks, facing forward. They must do this work even as they are themselves deprived of the safety of a school community where they could find their own support, their own respite from fear, trauma, and anxiety. Our elementary school community will be altered, damaged, and haunted by these poor decisions for years to come. Unit C Chaos Unit C members know that they too will face dislocation and disruption over the next weeks, as many will have their assignments changed. But they have heard NOTHING from the district about what those changes will look like. Instead, they were told NOT to report to the school communities of which they were a part last year, but instead to sit at home, alone, without the benefit of ANY community, and do professional development—without knowing anything about what specific professional developing they need. Nor do they know what they are supposed to do when the first three days are up, nor when they will be reassigned. And this “oversight”—oversight just seems too small a word to describe the level of disrespect Unit C members are feeling— is also clearly indicative of the fact that the district STILL has not thought much at all about what Unit C members’ roles will be this year. So once again, we, as an NTA community, do not know the role one third of our members will be playing this year. Our special education teachers must be at wit's end: Not only do they not know the districts’ plans for them, but also they have no idea what kind of support they can expect to do their critical work. I am sure that they will once again to be hung out to dry as the district makes “full compliance” its number one goal. As a union, we cannot leave things like this. No one should, or can, remain without community in this terribly stressful time. So, in the absence of any sensible directive, we, the NTA leadership, will make our own recommendation to our Unit C members: tomorrow, Tuesday, and Wednesday, report to your school communities from last year, and join them as they convene on Zoom to begin the new school year. Attend opening day staff meetings. Make decisions about which meetings will be useful or necessary for you to attend, and attend them. When there are no meetings it makes sense to attend, follow the district’s directive, and choose something from their professional development offerings you think would useful for you to learn, or you would like to learn, whatever your assignment turns out to be. In short: use your professional judgment. Remember, you’re only required to work 6 hours, and the district must pay you for whatever labor you perform. The NTA will have your backs for making the choice to do the important work you need to do tomorrow, and the next couple days after that. But most importantly: do not remain in isolation tomorrow. Health and Safety Chaos We have finally received some very limited responses to our request for information, and began late last week to digest them. What they have given us, is, mostly, nothing. They have provided us CDC guidelines, DESE guidelines, their draft template for building safety checks and protocols, with no specific data about whether, or how, those safety checks and protocols have been implemented or developed on a building by building basis, and, of course, their “Return to Learning” plan. A whole lot of nothing. I will communicate now the three most damaging and dangerous concerns: Heating and ventilation. They gave us the video link to the David Stickney’s primer on how univents and school HVAC systems circulate air. We learned that MERV 13 filters are on order. We saw where a MERV13 filter might be installed in a univent if any ever arrive. What we did not get was a building by building, room by room analysis of how the district assessed whether the ventilation in those rooms was adequate, nor any information on the metrics they used to assess whether the air circulation was adequate, nor information on whether the HVAC system in particular buildings and rooms will allow for the installation of MERV 13 filters. Nor did we receive information on any work that was done this summer to improve heating and ventilation where the district determined there were issues, nor the results of reliability, or stress testing. Nor did they share any building or room specific information on the status of windows. They gave us NOTHING. Because they have a legal obligation to provide us with the information we have requested, we must assume they have done nothing. This bears repeating: The Newton Public Schools intends to send its preschool, elementary, ELL, and many of its special education staff members and students into buildings on September 16, and it has done nothing to independently assess the quality of air and ventilation in its buildings and determine how well it will mitigate risk. We did get offered a dog and pony show. The district asked Chris and me, along with a number of School Committee members, to tag along with David Stickney as he gives everyone a tour of Franklin elementary school. School Committee members may have time for a dog and pony show: We need data. Response to positive cases in the schools. The NPS schools has no Newton specific plan for responding to a positive case of a COVID-19 in a building. Instead, they have offered us two things in response to our information request: a slide presentation from Newton Health and Human Services (HHS) that is entirely vague, and speaks nothing to the individual schools’ or the district’s responsibility, role, or protocols in addressing a positive case, and a copy of the DESE guidelines for managing a positive case. Even though the Newton Heath and Human Services slide presentation specifies no role for the schools themselves, the DESE guidelines do indeed provide guidance for what schools should do. But that is what they are: guidelines. They state what Newton is required to plan for; they are not a Newton specific plan. In other words, the district sent us a document that states what they are required to plan for. We have received no Newton specific plan. Again, since it is Newton’s legal obligation to provide us with that plan if we request it and they have it, we have to assume: Newton does not have a plan to share. This too bears repeating: the Newton Public Schools intends to send its preschool, elementary, ELL, and many of its special education staff members and students into buildings on September 16, and it has not developed a plan, per the DESE guidelines, to define its procedures and protocols for managing a positive case or cases of COVID-19. Finally, we also asked how the district will determine when to shut down a classroom, school, or school system, when and how; in short, how the district will determine there is an outbreak in a school, the schools, or the larger community. Their response: “NPS will make all decisions about opening and closing schools and buildings with guidance from the Governor, CDC, DESE and DPH, and Newton HHS, based upon the health and safety metrics as they are applicable to NPS.” A fancy way of saying: We decide. Surveillance and Containment of COVID-19. The district does not plan to do surveillance testing, nor does the district plan to restrict staff and students to small cohorts. If the district planned on doing regular surveillance testing of its staff and students, or even staff and students of selected programs, there might be less need to restrict students to cohorts. If you can keep a spark from ever touching the forest, it is less likely there will be a forest fire. But absent that, you have to find ways to keep the fire from spreading. For this, the district is relying exclusively on masks, hand washing, and social distancing. But the mask policy they shared with us says little about accountability, nor how the district plans on supporting educators in holding students accountable. And many of our elementary, and most of our preschool classrooms do not have sinks.  Moreover, the district has no plans to contain students and staff in small cohorts. It seems likely that special education staff will be required to provide across grade in person special ed services, perhaps even push in services. No one knows. Quite possibly special subject teachers and certainly aides and BTs will be deployed for snack and bus duty, after school care, and other school wide, cross classroom and grade level duties.  No one knows. Students will be riding buses. No one knows those protocols either.  This will make contact tracing more complex and time consuming, contribute to the virus spreading in buildings, and make schools less safe. So the district is, essentially, hoping that the community metrics will remain low enough that there just won’t be many cases. And if cases go up, what do they plan to do? Hold their breath? Cross their fingers? Pray? How much havoc must all of this wreak? Or rather, how much more havoc must all this wreak? We don’t know. But on one thing the district is very clear: THEY INSIST THEY WILL DECIDE when this poorly designed and poorly executed experiment with our health, our safety, our school communities, our livelihoods, and our sanity has failed. General Membership Meeting A PDF of the slide show for the General Membership meeting can be found here. We did not record the Zoom meeting itself, for confidentiality reasons. Responses to more of the questions we could not address at the time will follow. As you were all aware—over 1,500 you had individual conversations with members of your CAT team or building reps—we decided to postpone a vote on any extreme job action. We were loath to not hold that vote, but we still think it was the right choice. We have not ruled that action, nor other actions out; we just did not vote on any action on Thursday. And the EC met in an emergency meeting Saturday night to ask: should we call an action for Monday morning. We decided no, but the urgency continues to feel palpable. (For confidentiality reasons, I ask you to please not reply to this email asking questions stating or offering comments that should not be made public. Were the NTA to ask its members to engage in an act of civil disobedience, best not to leave a paper trail.) We voted on six demands: #1. That the district conduct surveillance testing. #2. That the district contract with an independent firm to review HVAC in NPS buildings slated to reopen. #3. That the district implement policies and protocols to protect the staff and students:

  • A clear, expedient, and enforceable face mask protocol.

  • Adequate and sufficient PPE for any staff member that needs/wants it.

#4. That students in the hybrid model be placed into small, truly separate cohorts that allow for quarantine and isolation in the event of positive COVID cases in a building. #5. That all schools give three hours during the ten planning days for staff to form NTA health and safety teams. All of these demands passed with over 90% of members present voting yes (at one point 1,250) The sixth demand, I mentioned above, was more controversial.

  • WHEREAS David Fleishman failed to ensure that educators and students have safe working and learning conditions, and

  • WHEREAS David Fleishman failed to plan adequately for the education of Newton’s children, and

  • WHEREAS David Fleishman ruptured school communities by unnecessarily dividing students, families and staff from their neighborhood schools, and

  • WHEREAS David Fleishman has failed to engage meaningfully in negotiations with the NTA, and

  • WHEREAS David Fleishman has failed in his duty to lead the Newton Public Schools in this moment of crisis,

  • THEREFORE, the membership of the Newton Teachers Association has NO CONFIDENCE in David Fleishman’s leadership, and we call on him to resign his office.

#6. We the members of the Newton Teachers Association have NO CONFIDENCE in David Fleishman’s leadership, and we call on him to resign his office. As I said above, we posed the question twice, once before the Q & A period, and once after. In the first vote, 61% of members voted no confidence with the call on him to resign; in the second, 67%. Many members have communicated to me that if we had not included the call on him to resign, the vote of no confidence would have been much higher.

"Clear eyes, full hearts, can't lose." Please take care and stay well. Mike  


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